Archive for November, 2007

Swimming at Ten Thousand Feet

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

By David

I enjoy flying for the same reason I enjoy swimming. From the moment you ease back on the controls or dive into a pool there is a peerless sense of involvement with one of nature’s elements. There is isolation, there is contentment and there is the busy effort of trying to do this thing just a little bit better than last time. I don’t know whether the multi-thousand hour airline pilots see it that way, but for a one thousand hour amateur, that’s the way it is for me.

Like swimming, flying produces an endless archive of stories. I don’t do it anymore, but when I first learned to fly, I spent most Sunday evenings in the Aero Club bar listening to the old timers tell stories about airplanes. I learned as much in that bar as I did, with Warwick, flying around Palmerston North airport. Every conceivable “what would you do if” was debated long into drunken and senseless nights. In severe turbulence, was hand flying or the automatic pilot better? Forced landings over a pine forest, in a stormy sea or along a rocky river were debated and never agreed upon. At the time, all my landings – even on Palmerston’s wide and long runway – were pretty forced. Little did I know how valuable those aero club debates would one day become.

One evening I was flying from Wellington to Rotorua. That’s about 235 miles. A bit passed half way, over a town called Taihape, you cross over some rugged country. Only real men live in Taihape. There must be women there too but they don’t get brought into the conversation much. Taihape is famous as the home of an annual Gumboot Throwing Championship. A small road behind the main street is permanently cordoned off for those wanting to practice gumboot throwing. It is every New Zealander’s shame that the world record just now is held by Jouni Viljanen of Finland with 64 meters and 35 centimeters.

As I flew high over Taihape on my way to Rotorua, a local farmer took off from his farm airstrip and came on the radio to file an in-flight flight plan. He said he was “off to Wanganui (about 65 miles) to do some shopping”. I’m sure air traffic control needed that information. When he was finished, the patient controller asked, “How many people are on board.” “Well,” came the carefully thought out reply, “there’s me, me dog and the missus, so that’s three of us.”

As a rule, in order to fly at night or in bad weather you need a license called an “instrument rating.” Just before I got mine from the Motueka Flying School, I was flying from Wellington to Christchurch (185 miles). I left Wellington a bit late and I had agreed to drop off a mate of mine at a small airfield near Blenheim in the South Island. By the time I arrived at Christchurch it was pitch black and I shouldn’t have still been flying around New Zealand’s skies. As I entered Christchurch International Airport’s airspace I called air traffic control and asked for landing instructions. I think they were fully aware the idiot in the airplane should not have been there, but to their credit, they never said anything. They told me to circle above Belfast. Fortunately I recognized the lights of Belfast because I used to work in the big meat plant there. The controller said that when I saw the lights of a Focker Friendship coming in from Wellington I should follow it into land.

A couple of circuits over Belfast and I saw the blink, blink, blink of the twin propeller Focker heading in to land. I called the tower and reported my find. The tower came back with the instruction, “Position behind the Focker Friendship and proceed to land.” Diligently I confirmed the instruction in those exact words. The radio clicked and a very up market, extremely bored Air New Zealand captain’s voice said, “For the information of both of you, I’m not a Focker Friendship, I’m a seven thirty seven.” After I’d landed the tower came back on the radio, this time just to say, “Oops.”

On a clear day, flying in New Zealand is a privilege. It is true; there is nowhere else on earth quite like it. New Zealand does not have the domestic order of England’s southern counties or the endless expanse of Australia’s outback or even the manufactured theme park quality of Florida’s south east coast. There is a youthful fresh variety about this place. Human toil has tempered but not tamed the enthusiasm of nature here.

My daughter Jane was just a week old the day I flew from Auckland to Wellington. After leaving Auckland I flew over the populated rush of the nation’s largest city, out over impossibly green dairy fields and passed New Zealand’s longest river’s troubled exit into the Tasman Sea. Further south I saw the triple cones of the central North Island mountains still holding on to small pockets of winter snow. Even here, in this most barren central plateau, the scene was awash with color. Light brown tussock, grey rock, a dark emerald canopy of native bush and smudged into the hillsides are purples, whites and reds of thriving imported heather. Approaching my reporting point at Ohura, the scene changed again to the gorges and ridges of the Parapara Ranges – a place of harshness and angles, an undisciplined jumble of busy streams, steep hills and narrow valleys. As far as I could tell there was not a flat paddock anywhere. This was the last place on earth you’d want to try a forced landing, I thought.

“Auckland Radar, this is Echo Kilo Romeo, overhead Ohura Beacon, 8500 feet. Transferring now to Ohakea radar 130 decimal 6.”

“Roger, Echo Kilo Romeo. Have a good day.”

“Ohakea Radar this is Echo Kilo Romeo overhead Ohura Beacon 8500 feet. Flight plan to Wellington, one POB”

“Roger, Echo Kilo Romeo”, said a lovely soft Scottish accent. “We have you on Radar at 8500 feet.”

Straight on to Paraparaumu, and then the decent into Wellington – that’s strange I thought. A thin mist had appeared over the front window. I looked out the side. Everything was clear. Perhaps it was some atmospheric condition. I checked the engine gauges. They were fine. I loosened my seat belt and looked over the control panel.

“Oh my God,” a thick stream of dark black oil was oozing over the engine cover. Small specks were covering the front window. I knew Wellington was out of the question. The oil pressure gauge was still fine. Perhaps I could reach Wanganui. Quickly I reduced power, eased the nose down and trimmed the Arrow to a 70 knot, 500 foot per minute descent towards the safety of Wanganui. “Maybe”, but before that thought had time to develop the oil pressure dropped into the red zone at the bottom of the gauge. “How long can it stay there before the engine stops,” I thought? The engine answered quickly with a load bang and silence. The propeller sat still.

I had to find a field. I looked to the left. Pine trees, great for export but not the place to land a small airplane. A gentle turn and too many hills – I had heard of topdressing pilots landing uphill, could I manage that? Another turn, thank God I had so much height, what was that – a field? It looked flat. It looked big. It would do.

“Ohakea Radar this is Echo Kilo Romeo.”

I refused to say Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. That would have made things far worse.

“Go ahead Echo Kilo Romeo” said the soft Scottish voice

“Echo Kilo Romeo, 20 miles south of Ohura beacon, descending through 5000 feet. I have complete engine failure.”

“Roger, Echo Kilo Romeo, Please advise your intentions”

My intention is that you should at least sound a little concerned, I thought. “Echo Kilo Romeo, I have found a paddock and am attempting to land.” I said.

“Roger, Echo Kilo Romeo” said the Scottish voice still with not the slightest note of surprise “Cleared to land in a paddock approximately 20 miles south of Ohura. Please call finals.”

Please call finals, who the hell did this guy think he was? I’d better do it though. The field was getting closer; time to put the wheels down; three green lights, good; a bit more flap. “I’ll come in high,” I thought, “that way I’ll avoid the trees and power lines that crossed the final approach.” So far so good – one more turn and I was committed – on finals for better or for worse, come around, line up, actually that looked pretty good.

“Echo Kilo Romeo, on finals for the field.”

“Roger, Echo Kilo Romeo, cleared to land. Good luck.”

Ahh, I thought, the Scottish voice is human after all.

Turn off the electrics, full flaps, speed is good, height, too high, but with no power and flaps that should quickly come down. There was barley in the field and it was a lot taller than I expected. Lift the nose up, up, up. Hold it off. Hold it off. The wheels touched. Keep the nose up. “We’re slowing quickly, must be the barley,” I thought. And then I stopped, silent and alone in a golden pool of barley.

“Bloody great,” I thought, “those Sunday nights in the Aero Club were worth it after all.”

Hear the Wild Dingos Call

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

By David

Some of you may recall that two or three weeks ago, Swimwatch published a story about one of our swimmers who was disqualified in the High School Regional Championships. Quite unbelievably, at yesterday’s Gold Coast Winter Championships, this swimmer found herself again embroiled in controversy. It’s unbelievable because on this earth ,you would struggle to find a nicer, less controversial figure than this particular swimmer.

Here’s what happened: The 500 yard freestyle events were swum as timed finals. With the exception of the fastest heat in each age group, all the heats were swum in the morning. On the morning heat sheets however, the evening’s fastest heats were included. I did not read the fine print and assumed our swimmer had plenty of time before her swim, only to discover that the swims shown before hers were all night swims and she had missed her heat.

A mother from our team approached the timekeeper in the swimmer’s lane and learned why the race appeared to have been swum so early. Our mother said a woman sitting next to the timekeeper had been adamant; our swimmer was at fault and would not be able to swim in a later heat. Realizing such decisions are not the responsibility of the timekeeper’s friends, I approached the referee. I’ve dealt with him before. He’s a doctor and is fair, impartial and honest – just the standard of official one has come to expect in the United States.

He said he understood the confusion, thought it was fair and would include our swimmer in a spare lane in the event’s last heat. We shook hands, I thanked him and left feeling good about the standard of American officials. There is many a country around the world where what he’d done would never have been considered. In the best interest of a swimmer this man had done what was just. He had prevented a 16 year old from having the sort of experience that, repeated a few times, could drive her from the sport. A thankful girl swam in the last heat and we thought no more of it.

Six hours later I pulled into the pool parking lot for the evening finals. As I climbed from the car the pool’s loudspeaker demanded, “Would the coach of Aqua Crest come to the official’s table.” There I met the “timekeeper’s friend” who had spoken to our mother in the morning. She said she was the Chairman of the Florida Gold Coast Official’s Committee even though the website says that is still Jay Thomas’ job.

She said she wanted to make several points;

  1. She was not going to disqualify our swimmer from the morning’s race. She implied that she could, which was ridiculous. Even if she’d wanted to, I doubt that disqualifying someone six hours later for something the referee had approved would stand rule book analysis. An empty threat like that does nothing for the accuser’s credibility.
  1. She said I had been dishonest by going behind her back and approaching the referee. I guess I was supposed to know she was someone important, but I didn’t. No one went behind anyone’s back. I spoke to the referee without any thought for what an unknown “timekeeper’s friend” had told one of our mothers. Being accused of dishonesty was insulting and unnecessary.
  1. Accepting she was not the sort of person I have much in common with, I decided to leave. I told her the conversation was over and backed away. She put her hand on my arm in an action I felt was designed to stop me leaving. I told her to let me go, I did not appreciate her message or its delivery.

The next morning, our timekeeper’s friend had another meeting arranged, this time with the local coach and a policeman. A policeman. Yes, seriously.

Ironically the coach and the policeman said they wanted peace. “Not half as much as I do,” I said. “Both the last two meetings were unnecessary and had not been called by me. Keep that woman away from me!”

Her behavior was unacceptable. There was no need to bring up again something that had been well and properly resolved on the morning of the first day. God knows what motive prompted her to embark on her ill-advised odyssey. If she had a problem she should have addressed it with the referee who came to the aid of our swimmer. In the end she seemed to realize that, and apologized. Because she apologized, presumably she was aware she had done something wrong.

However, some things go beyond an apology. What she did requires addressing and censure. It is common, in cases such as this, for Swimwatch to receive comments about how officials are volunteers, donating their time to the sport. All that is true. Swimwatch has commented on many outstanding examples of officials at work, especially in the United States. In no way does that mean the actions of officials are above critical analysis. Identifying one example of bad officiating is not an attack on all officials. It is simply saying this one did bad and should be told that

Rough Mates of Mine

Saturday, November 17th, 2007

By David

I’ve been in a boxing ring twice. My career ended 1:1, both decisions coming as the result of a knockout. The first rumble was part of my initiation as a third former (freshman) at Wellington College. For American readers, “college” in New Zealand means high school. I was a Firth House boarder which allowed more time for harsher and more prolonged initiation rituals, all aimed at inflicting pain or humiliation or both. My task was to fight Brian, the biggest fifth former (junior classman) in the school, an expert rugby player and never beaten at boxing. Witnesses to the event told me that my predecessors had survived best by taking a few hits until their nose or some other site started to bleed. They had then fallen over and begged for mercy. They said that I would be well advised to do the same thing.

I am unsure whether or not I agreed with their plan. The idea of taking the first few hits had very little appeal. Anyway, on the first Friday of school I was taken to the Aero Club where most initiation ceremonies were performed. Gloves were fitted and a bell rang. Brian advanced across the ring. He was huge, muscles everywhere, my death in his eyes. I closed my eyes. Better not, I thought, bear witness to my passing. In a final act of defiance I swung my right arm as hard as I could.

I’m told it was the Aero Club’s best and cleanest punch. I’m told it landed square in the middle of Brian’s perfect face. I’m told Brian crumpled to the floor on his muscle bound bottom, clutching at the blood spurting from his aristocratic nose. I’m told this because I still had my eyes tightly closed waiting for Brian’s assault. When I did look, Brian was on the floor surrounded by distressed sycophants, concerned at how they would repair their hero so the teachers would not know. None of them spoke to me, afraid that their conversation may be taken as approval for what had just taken place. I took my gloves off and left determined to convey the impression of “no problem, just another day’s work”.

I’ve mentioned Kahui and Donald on Swimwatch before. They were my Te Reinga mates. We hunted together, swam together and ran cross country together. We had our share of success, winning the provincial high school team cross country championship, earning good money from selling deer and wild pigs and I swam for Hawkes Bay and won an Auckland provincial (state) championship. One activity we did not share was their passion for boxing. They were good; both New Zealand junior gold medalists. They trained most nights in the Pohataroa Station (farm) shearing shed. It was two miles from our homes. I used to run up there and do their dry-land and weight training. I stayed well clear of the ring though. They would have murdered me.

Their coach was local school teacher, Mane Mokomoko. He was a tough bugger who later fought for New Zealand in the Vietnam War. I pity any Vietcong who came across Mokomoko on a dark night. Being that I knew better than to fight Kahui or Donald, Mokomoko suggested I might like to box Mavis Stone. She was no push over, a tough and skilled fighter who had also won secondary school shot put titles. Eventually social pressure and Mavis’ assurance that she would go easy on me forced me to agree. I entered the ring, a bundle of nerves and contradictions: on one side, a woman intent and capable of causing me bodily harm, and on the other, a mother whose clear instruction was to never hit a woman.

As we closed I swear I never saw it coming. Mavis hit me with the force of a dozen Mac trucks. I do not know how many of you have read Mohammed Ali’s biography, but in it he describes the confusion caused by a hard hit. He likens it to entering a room filled with floating serpents, alligators and butterflies. I didn’t see any serpents but I was certainly locked in a pretty dark and small room at that moment. When the confusion cleared I was on my knees and my blood was drip, drip, dripping on to the shearing shed’s lanoline and sweat stained wooden floor. Mavis had won by a knockout in just nineteen seconds.

Mokomoko sent us home that night with the instruction that we had to hop the first mile on one leg and the second mile on the other leg. Donald and Kahui barely made it such was their glee at my puny performance. The next morning I was unsure whether my nose, legs or pride hurt the most. The twenty five mile trip to school was longer than usual as Donald and Kahui told each new passenger the story of last night’s training. Sometimes your mates can be rough buggers.

Casualty Rate

Tuesday, November 13th, 2007

By David

In World War Two, 72 million of a total involved population of 1961 million died; a casualty rate of 3.7%.

On the Florida Gold Coast of all the swimmers registered at 10 years of age only 10% are still swimming at age 16; a casualty rate of 90%.

Two Board members from our team attended the Florida Gold Coast Annual Meeting this weekend. They were impressed with the emphasis placed on the region’s high drop-out rate. I’m impressed too. Florida Gold Coast is not the only place in the world that has the problem. Certainly New Zealand does. From what I’m told, the speakers at the Florida Gold Coast meeting attacked the dilemma head on, put the blame where at least 50% of it lies – over ambitious parents (OAPs): all the ones with, “eat sleep swim” on their number plates, or “I’m a swimming Mom” on the wind shield.

The attention of the Annual Meeting is not misplaced. The casualty rate is outrageous. Since I’ve been in Florida, I have tried to stress the importance of patience, of proper and careful swimming education – often to no avail. Here is what I mean:

A swimmer was brought to me six months after I arrived in Florida. The swimmer was a wreck mentally – the person could not even finish a race. The swimmer’s physical state was poor, as well: they were half a minute slower over 800 meters than they had been three years earlier. It did not take PhD in exercise physiology to recognize over-use abuse; just the thing being talked about at the Florida meeting. Through care and patience, the swimmer was brought back to life.

Another mother kept bringing her ten year old daughter to every day double sessions and quietly dropped hints that I should be writing up more speed work. No amount of education seemed to work on an otherwise intelligent human being. Her child’s swimming was a drug. She knew times and splits for her daughter and every other daughter who swam on the Florida Gold Coast. All classic OAP.

Yes, Florida Gold Coast’s emphasis on OAPs is not misplaced. But it is only half the story. You see, there is no point in some of us doing the right thing – of preaching the importance of patience, of holding off severe speed work, of accepting early modest race results, of stressing personal improvement ahead of winning – when there are other coaches who offer a welcome home for the greedy.

Never anywhere have I seen a transfer rate like that on Florida’s Gold Coast. When I arrived one of the Region’s long time coaches told me about the migration habits of some of the local swimming population. I didn’t believe him. I thought he was being bitter. Not at all; it’s like fair ground dodgems at NASCAR speed.

OAPs can only feed their habit when they find a coach willing to supply a home. While there are coaches out there pandering to the early and deadly ambition of greedy parents, those coaches who do the right thing are going to lose money. Lydiard spoke about this in his first book written back in the early 1960s. He said coaches who followed his physiologically sound principles would lose runners. He lost a few, but did not worry as those who left never succeeded in the world arena. Like Lydiard, I don’t really care. It is just another price of doing the right thing. As the data shows, eventually it’s the greedy that lose most.

Junkies will find a pusher. But if the 90% casualty rate is to be reduced there is little point in only addressing the problem of OAPs. Florida Gold coast also needs to address the problem of coaches who supply OAPs with their fix. That’s the step that would take real courage.

The Best Least-Recognised Pools in the World

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

By Jane

David Cromwell over at TimedFinals recently put together Top 5 Tuesday on the best swimming venues in the United States. He covered the virtues of the aquatic centers at Fort Lauderdale, Seattle (David! The pool is in Federal Way! That’s like saying Newark is in Manhattan!), Minneapolis, Texas at Austin and Indianapolis. I’ve swum in three of the five and they are fantastic venues. “Seattle” hosted my first Pac 10 Championships, where I placed seventh in the 200 yard breaststroke. Minneapolis saw me qualify for NCAAs in the same event. I swam in my first U.S. Senior Nationals at Indianapolis whilst suffering from whooping cough. I was unaware of this at the time, since I’d been misdiagnosed as having asthma. But I digress…

I wanted to pay some attention to some of the world’s less well-known swimming complexes that are pretty special. The pools that you loved swimming at, not because of their incredible records, impressive diving platforms or massive stadiums. They just had personality. The pools are listed in an order which is purely arbitrary and indicates not their worth, but the order in which I thought of them.

8. Le Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Italy
Olimpico, Piazza Gentile da Fabriano, 17, 00196 Roma, Roma (Lazio), Italy

The venue for the 1960 Olympic Games, Rome’s aquatic center is a collection of outdoor pools that look like they’ve been there since the Roman Empire ran Britain. Two of the secondary pools, situated behind the main competition pools and up a small hill, don’t exactly live up to Fina standards for length. I’m guessing the one I used to practice in between races was about 20 meters long. Give or take.

There are two fifty-meter pools at the facility and one is indoors. Its ceiling is incredibly high and is covered with mosaic tiles. There is a long, enclosed wooden walkway that leads from the indoor pool to the Olympic pool outside. The entire venue is probably one of the most amazing I’ve ever seen.

7. North Sydney Olympic Pool, Sydney, Australia

20 Alfred Street South, Milsons Point, New South Wales 2061, Australia

You can’t do much better then North Sydney in terms of location. The pool sits directly beneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge and is flanked by the Luna Park amusement arcade. The water is salt, which burns Australian mosquito bites and tastes simply terrible, but you’ll put up with it to swim in here.

Beat that

6. Freyberg Pool, Wellington, New Zealand
139 Oriental Parade, Wellington, New Zealand

Freyberg pool used to be kind of awful, even though its location is also pretty stellar. When I was younger, the 33.3 meter (yeah, seriously…) pool was seen as the poor second cousin of some of Wellington’s better facilities, such as the newer Regional Aquatic Centre. However, Freyberg has always struck me as a work in progress that has additions and improvements made to it all the time.

The pool appears to stick out from Oriental Parade into Wellington Harbour, its northern and southern facing walls made mostly of glass. Swimwatch’s David had just completed a training session at Freyberg during his university years when a massive Wellington storm blew in some of Freyberg’s panes of glass. That was the same day the Wahine sank in Wellington harbour.

Freyberg’s only drawback is its odd length, which requires swimmers complete three lengths in order to have swum 99.999 meters. However, several good swimmers have trained there, and one may say that training in such a pool improves your chances at being good at both short and long course swimming!

5. Piscine Georges Vallerey, Paris, France
148, Avenue Gambetta, 75020 Paris, France

This pool staged Paris’s Olympic swimming in 1928. It was initially built atop a giant furnace, which is what kept the pool’s water warm. Now, Parisian and French Swimming offices inhabit the space where the furnace used to be. I can’t imagine working beneath that amount of water, but dozens of French swimming administrators do so every day.

4. Newmarket Olympic Pool, Auckland, New Zealand
77 Broadway, Auckland, New Zealand

These two pictures of the Newmarket pool were emailed to me by John Nixon, who manages the facility. Previously, I had a rather unflattering picture of the pool in this post, but this one definitely does the pool justice. It’s a great place. Very near downtown Auckland, Newmarket is a classic old Olympic-sized facility that has been updated with a trendy cafe, fitness center, massage therapy unit and sports shop. When racing in Auckland, we’d drive for half an hour to work out at Newmarket, avoiding Auckland’s newer, more boring pools. The pool was covered in 1993, after being outdoors for many years. The host of the 1950 Empire Games (now Commonwealth Games), it has been an Auckland landmark for well over half a century. Below, the pool is shown as it was in 1950 during the Empire Games.

3. DeNunzio Pool, Princeton, New Jersey, United States

389 Witherspoon St, Princeton, NJ 08542

Princeton University’s pool is awesome. It incorporates everything that a “real” aquatic center should have as well as really feeling like a university pool. That can be a hard balance to achieve. While the University of Minnesota’s pool is a true aquatic center, the University of Washington’s pool is 100% college facility. The DeNunzio pool has all the charm of one with the professionalism of the other. And its flash new scoreboard is neat, too.

2. Belmont Plaza Pool, Long Beach, California, United States

Long Beach’s Belmont Plaza pool is possibly the most famous indoor pool in California. Maybe it’s the only indoor pool in California. If you’ve never been there, you may have seen it as the “school pool” in the movie Van Wilder. Big pictures of swimmers appear on Long Beach’s walls. Numerous international flags are displayed for all us foreign athletes who raced there during Pac 10s and Speedo Cup. The place gets filthy during such large meets and sand comes under the doors from the nearby beach. It’s one of my favourite pools in all the world.

Pac-10 relays prepare to take off

1. Leeds International Pool, Leeds, England
Westgate. Leeds. LS1 4PH

The Leeds International Pool closed permanently in October, 2007. It is a huge shame. The pool was old, a bit decrepit, strangely designed and too shallow. However, it was a landmark. I have heard that a new aquatic center has been built in Leeds to replace the L.I.P. Perhaps in 50 years and after much love and just as much abuse, the new pool might match the antiquated awesomeness of its predecessor.

Please add your own un-recognised pools in the comments. There are far more of them out there than I’ve mentioned here. Include links to pictures if you can find them!